Blanket coverage in the music press and wall‑to‑wall radio play have made Gay Dad the hottest new band in the UK. Matt Bell talks to singer Cliff Jones and producer Mark Frith about the recording of their second hit single, 'Joy'.
Following a Top 10 single is never easy — but especially not if you're in the controversial band Gay Dad, who rammed themselves into the consciousness of the UK public towards the end of last year and so far show no signs of returning quietly whence they came. 'To Earth With Love', their fine debut single, crashed into the charts in February with its riff‑tastic '70s‑style guitars, driving sequenced synths, and cartoon lyrics (eg. "That's cool — Aerosmith rule!"). Since then the band have rarely been out of the media spotlight, thanks mainly to the antics of lead singer Cliff Jones. A former music journalist, Cliff has proved to be a master manipulator of the press, with a seemingly inexhaustable supply of juicy quotes and newsworthy anecdotes.
Despite their hype‑ridden history, the five members of Gay Dad (Cliff plus Nicholas 'Baz' Crowe, drums; Nigel Hoyle, bass; James Risebero, keyboards; and Charley Stone, guitar) have unwaveringly maintained that they are genuine. There is certainly no denying that the group can play, as their blistering live performance of their new single 'Joy' on Jules Holland's Later show in May testifies. Sneaking an interview backstage at Later with Cliff and Mark Frith (long‑standing friend, engineer and co‑producer of the band's forthcoming debut album Leisurenoise) about the making of 'Joy', I am forced to concede that Gay Dad — daft name notwithstanding — are for real. Despite the occasional lapse into Cliffspeak™ (see box elsewhere in this article), Mr Jones turns out to be a keen SOS reader, eager to supply as much involved technical detail about the recording of his new single as he can remember. It turns out to be a cracking tale...
Mark Frith first met the band when he was working as in‑house Engineer at Raezor Studios in Wandsworth. Cliff and Baz came in to record some demos, and they all hit it off. When the band signed to London Records, well‑known producer Chris Hughes (known for his work with Adam & The Ants and Tears For Fears) agreed to produce their debut album, and Gary Langan (ex‑Art Of Noise member anengineer on Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody', amongst many other credits) was assigned to the engineer's chair. But the band wanted to continue working with Mark, so he became co‑producer. As he remembers it, 'Joy' was regarded as a potential single from the very start of the sessions.
Mark: "I was just finishing work on 'To Earth With Love' at Raezor when Cliff came bounding in with a cassette and slammed it on at mega‑volume. Out came this very full‑on wash of sound."
Mark and the rest of the band were impressed by Cliff's home‑made demo (see the 'Writing Joy' box), but realised that the track would have to be properly arranged to work as a single. "It was a very impressionistic demo — not much over a minute long, with the chorus melody nearly in place, but not many words on the verse. Also, everything was very dense and distorted. It sounded absolutely fabulous, but a bit fuzzy. It still had a long way to go, as the following months proved! The clarity of a studio recording brings its own problems; it's like putting a magnifying glass on a track, and it's up to the band to fill in the details.
"The band took the track into rehearsal studios, and it was here that they started to work on the different parts of the song. Chris [Hughes] was really good at assessing the value of the various sections."
The motivation behind the inclusion of various fairly distinct sections in the song, and of subsequently also recording it in distinct parts, was twofold. Firstly, the group could polish the parts individually and introduce quite stylistically different feels within the one song. Cliff: "Why should a record end in the same style in which it began? 'Good Vibrations' doesn't, for example."
Though you might not think it to listen to 'Joy', Cliff cites Brian Wilson's epic 1966 production as a big influence on the single (he's a big fan of not only Brian Wilson's work, but also that of his less‑well‑known brothers Carl and Dennis). This was the second reason for recording 'Joy' this way; it was how 'Good Vibrations' was made, by recording and overdubbing several distinct multitrack sections which were then mixed down to mono tape and physically spliced together. Cliff: "I listened to 'Good Vibrations', the album Pet Sounds, and a lot of other stuff that Brian Wilson did at that time, and the thing is, you hear the sections, but it's just like you'd hear the change in an orchestral suite, where something else comes in with a completely different tempo, and different orchestration, or whatever. I thought 'Why shouldn't we do that?'"
The difference was that, unlike Brian Wilson in 1966, Gay Dad had something a little more flexible than analogue tape to record to, for Chris Hughes had brought his Apple Mac/Digidesign Pro Tools/Emagic Logic rig to the sessions. This was an eye‑opener for Mark: "It was my first real encounter with Pro Tools; I'd only used it a couple of times before. Logic with Pro Tools gives you so much flexibility. Chris also brought Line 6's Amp Farm amp simulation plug‑in into the process."
Far from rushing in, however, the rest of the band were initially cautious. Cliff: "We started off as Pro Tools sceptics, because I've heard some appalling results in the past, and I've never been a fan of the A‑Ds at 16 or 20 bits; they never sounded good enough to me. But we went through valve gear to warm up the sound, and I was insistent throughout that I wanted the whole thing to come back as if it had been on tape, so we recorded the drums and bass, for example, on to tape first and then put it into Pro Tools..."
Together, the band and Mark, with Chris and Gary, developed a way of working with Pro Tools that everyone was happy with, which Baz termed 'playgramming'. Cliff: "We all played the song, but then you take the sections you like, the ones that have the maximum energy potential, cut them out and work on them separately in Pro Tools. Later, you can reassemble them and add fresh overdubs on top to pull everything together". Mark agrees that Pro Tools is best used to capture musicians playing together. "I love Pro Tools and what it can do, but it can't replace or create a really heartfelt performance, and it never will. It's just a modern update of the tape recorder, really, with more flexibility."
With the 'playgramming' approach in mind, the group began preparations to lay down a rhythm track for the song. Mark: "The essential thing with the 'Joy' demo was the squareness of the Kraftwerk/Neu!‑style metronomic groove [see 'Writing Joy!' box]. But I can't stand that experience that drummers and other musicians undergo in the studio where they're just listening to a click track — an endless 'tock tock tock' in their headphones. It's almost painful, and it's not very funky to react to. I can't see how musicians are expected to come up with anything great in those circumstances. It's massively easier for those people who add their parts to a multitrack later, when there's more to react to. Baz is a creative drummer, and live, he will react to the vocal particularly. So, given that this track was always going to be done to a metronomic click, it made sense to make the click as vibey as possible."
Repairing to The Dairy studio in Brixton, the band set up a loop consisting of a repeating drum machine pattern (from Chris' Alesis DM5 drum module). Chris had also brought a Clavia Nord Lead synth with him, and while experimenting with the front‑panel filter cutoff knobs as keyboard player James keyed a repeating bass riff, Mark created a curious wah‑wah‑like rhythmic modulated keyboard line. This was unwittingly recorded by Chris into Logic, which he had left in Record Mode. "If you listen to that, it starts to go really clicky, as the envelope opens up; I did that with the mod wheel. That really drove the groove."
Cliff: "That's another piece of 'playgramming'; because we did a pass through the track, and there were parts where Mark got the cutoff setting wrong, but there were bits where it was spot on and right. It would be very hard to create that effect and get it right throughout the whole track; but with Pro Tools, you can take the minute that does work and use that, extend it for as long as you want, and so on."
The 'click track' — which didn't actually have a metronome in it any longer — was completed by the addition of 'Joy's' chords, played by James on the 'PsychoRhodes' patch of his JV1080. Now Baz could record his rhythm track. Mark: "We had Logic sync'ed up to a 2‑inch analogue 24‑track tape, and from that we drove the Nord line and the DM5 loop for Baz to play to. He went into the pegboard room at the back of The Dairy with his kit, and Gary got a nice fat‑sounding rhythm take on the 2‑inch.
"Next, Nigel got the bass done. We used an Epiphone semi‑acoustic, to give it that warm roundness. It was all about bottom end at that stage — getting it to sound fat! It was also recorded to the 2‑inch 24‑track, both DI'd and miked up with a Neumann U47 mic and a TubetecLCA2B dual‑channel compressor on it. The bass line was a lynch‑pin part of the track. It was a great piece of playing."
Cliff agrees. "The bass is phenomenal — and it's nothing like the one that I had on my demo. Nige did this new fluid bass line which doesn't seem to follow any logical progression, or any of the root notes of the chords — it weaves its way around the music in the same way that the bass does on some of the Beach Boys' other great arrangements, like 'Sloop John B'. Not that I'm trying to say we're up there with that track, or that Nigel copied that — he did it off the top of his head, and it really worked."
With the rhythm section apparently coming together, Cliff began to work on guitars. It was now, entirely by accident, that he stumbled on the crunchy, super‑distorted double‑tracked guitar sound — described as "a bag of filth" by Mark — that heralds the start and choruses of 'Joy'. Cliff was playing his 1966 Fender Electric 12 in an open E tuning and using a Colorsound Fuzz pedal, but someone had half‑knocked out the jack from the pedal. When he played, the pedal partially shorted out, resulting in a even messier fuzz sound: "Everyone went 'What was that? Don't move! DON'T MOVE!! Quick, get the Pro Tools rig up and record it, before it goes again!' We recorded it into Pro Tools, edited it and repeated it, because you couldn't ever do that again.
"At one point, I did want a synth doing something to start the track off, but Baz thought we should leave the guitar. He said it was something totally attention‑grabbing that hits you over the head — like the riff to the Stones' 'Satisfaction', only updated, because it's far more aggressive and evil‑sounding than the Stones would ever be."
As Cliff worked on the guitar arrangements, he recorded several lines which never made it to the final mix of the record, including a chugging rhythm guitar. Mark: "We recorded loads of guitars, but then didn't use them all. Wherever you went in the recording process, there was Cliff ready to chance his arm with yet another guitar overdub."
Not all the guitars were scrapped, however. Cliff recorded a sparkling 12‑string and double‑tracked it to provide the melody on the bridge to the chorus, and also came up with the energetic riff in the chorus that overlays the main fuzz riff from the second verse on. Once again, he was looking to history for inspiration; this time a whole mix of reference points. "It was an awkward, spiky sound I wanted, like the guitar from 'Generals & Majors' by XTC... or something Tom Verlaine [of Television] would play. There's a kind of sound which Andy Partridge [of XTC] used to get a lot. I wanted a riff that had all those elements, and I got it by detuning the guitar into a random tuning, and playing this weird suspension with a funk rhythm, so it came out sounding like a mutant Chic riff."
Cliff's constant aid in the search for fresh guitar sounds was Line 6's amp modelling plug‑in. "I did nearly all the guitars through Amp Farm in Pro Tools, which I can thoroughly recommend to anybody."
It wasn't just Cliff that was impressed; so was Mark. "I've a good selection of real old amps, so we put Amp Farm alongside them. It really stands up; it's an amazing‑sounding piece of kit. The thing that really impressed me was the cab simulator. You can get right in there and totally change the phase, the virtual miking and everything."
Keyboardist James Risebero had already added Rhodes chords to the track; now his keyboard overdubs began in earnest, adding another diverse texture to the developing song. Despite his important role, James' keyboard rig is compact, consisting solely of a Yamaha AN1x and a Roland JV1080. Nevertheless, the AN1x proved adequate to handle most of the keyboard parts on 'Joy' — for example the Theremin‑like line on the bridge to the choruses (another nod to 'Good Vibrations'?).
Mark: "That's a superb instrument. James hadn't had it long, so he was playing around and experimenting with it a lot. We used the AN1x's controllers a lot, to create some of the filter sweeps on the verse."
Cliff: "There's also a real Mellotron on the bridges to the chorus, played backwards. It adds a scary feel, but it's a beautiful line."
By this time, the sessions for Leisurenoise had moved to Rockfield Studios in Wales. Mark: "The track was well under way at Rockfield, and the full chorus melody was established, but Cliff really wanted to improve on it."
At this stage, only guide vocals were in place and the verses were much thicker with guitar overdubs than the finished mix. It was around now that the group decided to make the verses less cluttered and accentuate the already‑raw energy of the crunchy chorus. But when they tried this, they found the original drum track from The Dairy unsuitable.
Cliff: "The rhythm track was pumping like you would not believe, but you couldn't squeeze any more power out of it; the drums had no headroom, and everything else had to sit at their level in the mix."
The night we did that we were smashed out of our brains, and we were really excited, because we were in the same studio where Queen had recorded 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
A solution was found by recording a new drum track in the stone live room at Rockfield. Mark: "That gave us that really explosive drum sound, which took the chorus up one more level. We put the Rockfield drum track just on the choruses with Pro Tools, but we kept the bass drum from the original drum track throughout, because it had a warmth to its sound."
Encouraged by the live‑sounding rhythm track (and not a little alcohol) the group also recorded a new section, which had not been on Cliff's original demo; the "ready to die" ending. As Cliff admits, "The night we did that we were smashed out of our brains, and we were really excited, because we were in the same studio where Queen had recorded 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Baz did this very drunken 'old lady falling down the stairs' fill; it sounded like he wasn't going to make the end of the bar in time, but he just pulled it back in at the last minute!".
After Rockfield, the band moved to Metropolis in London, to wrap up the work. Mark: "By that stage, we had a really good idea of how it was going to be; a cool verse, a beautiful 'swimmy' bridge to the chorus, and a chorus that pinned you to the back of the wall!" Nevertheless, at this late stage, overdubs were still being added. "As we were going for the much cooler verse, Chris suggested doing some soul handclaps in time with the snare. They were done in the passageway outside Studio B at Metropolis. They're very dry, and they're very tight on the snare, because I was really getting into the Pro Tools thing by this stage, so what I did was take a couple of the best claps and put them right on top of the snare drum beats, so that it forms part of the overall sound, as a textural thing — it makes the snare beats sound nice and thick. When we'd done that, James started calling for a bit of percussion, so he and Chris went out in the corridor to tap on a couple of beer glasses, which just happened to be lying around the place... you've got to use what you can, after all!" he laughs. In the mix, these added an almost cowbell‑like texture to the verses throughout the song.
Another addition at Metropolis was James's keyboard solo, a crazy, random series of bends and portamento AN1x swoops. Mark: "We were down in Metropolis B when that solo came about; it was the AN1x going through a mic amp on the SSL desk. We stuck a spade‑load of distortion on by overloading the mic amp on the SSL and sticking a limiter on it — it sounds completely screwed up!"
At Metropolis, Cliff also finished the lead vocal. Mark had recorded many attempts from an early stage ("I believe you have to have a good vocal as early as possible on in a track, for others to react to; you haven't got a pop song unless you've got a vocal"), but Cliff continually professed himself unhappy. Cliff: "The middle eight you hear on the finished record comes from the first time I sang it, but the other vocals were changed. I lived with the backing track for a while, and decided I wanted to change most of the rest."
Mark: "Cliff rises to the occasion when it's needed. On this day, we were in a tiny programming suite at Metropolis, and he was on a Neumann U67 mic — which was just what happened to be there — via a Telefunken V72 mic preamp. In the space of about four takes, he really got those choruses sorted out; you can hear the V72 overloading when he did the 'Joyyy!!!' shout on the chorus, but it did it in a really good way. That was a pivotal moment. Once we'd got that chorus vocal, sung in full heart, with that slightly overdriven valve tone, we had the track."
With the track almost ready for mixing, Cliff changed his mind about some of the guitar lines again, stripping out more lines and overdubbing distorted droning guitars onto the single's verses via his new Line 6 Flextone amp. In the context of the rest of the mix, the single‑note, highly overdriven guitars took on a pad‑like quality similar to that of a harmonium, which satisfied him at last.
Approximately 90 tracks, tape and digital, were taken up by the mix for 'Joy', which was carried out on the Neve desk in Metropolis C, the band having tried and been disappointed by the SSL in Studio B. Two Pro Tools systems were used, one containing all the guitars running through Amp Farm and the Rockfield drum kit, and the other with the vocals in it. There was also the slaved analogue 24‑track containing the pegboard room drum kit, and the bass guitar. Cliff requested that one kit and the bass remained on analogue tape until the end. Mark: "It was a big mix — the 2‑inch and two Pro Toolrigs, one with three 888 I/Os and one with two 888s. It filled up the 72‑channel Neve in Studio C no problem. The sound of the Neve suited the fat sound of the track, and also had this beautiful gelling ability; when you're dealing with something as dense as 'Joy', it brings things together."
Cliff has strong views on mastering: "Short of choosing the mics that are used at the first stage of recording, mastering is the most important part of the process. I can't believe bands that can't be bothered to attend their mastering sessions; we had the right written into our record contract. You can turn a piece of shit into something that sounds great. It's just as important as the mix."
The cut took place in America, with renowned mastering engineer Howie Weinberg applying the required 'American sound' to the band's half‑inch masters. Mark: "I've always thought that just putting stuff on half‑inch seems to improve it; I'd never use DAT.
"Howie had some lovely gear; a customised Neumann desk, a choice of nice half‑inch machines, an Ampex and Studer 820 with some esoteric high‑end playback amps. He didn't hang about — he basically EQd the whole album in one day and cut it the next. Suddenly, the whole thing sounded like a track you'd hear on American radio. He's quite a violent cutting engineer. Every VU meter I looked at was absolutely pinned... I was surprised, because like most British engineers I would probably err on the side of caution at a cut, but... well, you're standing there next to platinum discs for Nirvana's Nevermind and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic; you have to think 'He knows what he's doing.'"
With 'Joy' complete at last and Leisurenoise ready for release, Mark Frith contemplates his future. The experience he has gained as a Pro Tools operator will prove invaluable to him, as will the working relationship he has established with Gary Langan. Indeed, he is already acting as Gary's Pro Tools operator on Pete Townshend's new project, and has taken the step up of being represented by producer management SJP/Dodgy. His new skills, too, have made him still more useful to his old friends in Gay Dad, as Cliff relates: "I would say that the way things are going now with studio technology, it's not enough just to be a band; you need to have someone on your side who will really work with you, and help you to develop a sound that's your own. Gay Dad's record could not have been made without Mark Frith. His motto is 'Fear no gear' but more than just that, he was our Vibe Controller; he would tell us when a line wasn't working, or when something needed to be made more prominent. Every band needs that objective set of ears; not even your producer necessarily, but if possible someone who you know a bit more intimately. He's our George Martin. I can't imagine Gay Dad making an album without him."
No interview with Cliff Jones would be complete without a few choice quotes in purest Cliffspeak™. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Cliff Jones!
- "Chris Hughes brought a mathematical discipline to Gay Dad, which was needed, because otherwise Gay Dad would be a kind of wayward organic creature..."
- "'Joy' sounds like a record that was made 10 minutes in the future to me..."
- "It was a Krautrock monster that we had to wrestle to the ground, it was like a... like a big fish. Like a marlin or something."
- "There were times when it was so great, we'd dance in the control room. And then there was the time I was on the floor crying my eyes out. They called me 'The Pendulum' in the studio, cause I'd come in some days saying 'Oh, it's all awful. Let's burn the tapes...'" We did consider taking the tapes and Jaz cartridges out and ritually burning them. We thought 'This track is cursed, it's evil. It's horrid.'"
Most Gay Dad material is written by the band working together, but 'Joy' is an exception. Cliff takes up the tale: "The song is actually something that I wrote nearly 10 years ago at the University Of Durham, at the recording studio there. It's run by Dr. Peter Manning, one of the original pioneers in electronic composition. I wasn't doing a music degree there, but he would let me use the recording facilties there during downtime.
"It was the most incredible studio, right under the cathedral in Palace Green in Durham, with an old EMO desk, two VCS3 synths, a beautiful old one‑inch Brenell 8‑track, and loads of brilliant but eccentric outboard gear — all really well maintained. That was where I first recorded 'Joy', using a Sennheiser mic to record the vocal, and engineering it myself; I had to set the Brenell going myself in the control room and then run out to do the vocals at the mic... I put some VCS3 on it too. There's only one copy of this version — and I don't have it! So when years later, I still had the song in my head, I decided to redo the demo on my Yamaha MD4."
Using his Minidisc multitracker and his Apple Mac laptop, Cliff sketched out the next Gay Dad single, using a drum loop from a record by '70s Krautrockers Neu! (edited with BIAS Peak) as the rhythmic foundation. "I'm really into Kraftwerk and Neu!'s metronomic rhythms — and I thought people might dig a Neu!‑style disco groove. I then overdubbed vocals, guitar, and a 'bass' — actually my Les Paul guitar tuned down! — doing reduction mixes to stereo to free up more tracks and then overdubbing on those again. It's a very old‑fashioned way of recording, but it works."
Cliff's vocal is heavily processed and delayed in some parts of 'Joy', but this turns out to be nothing more complex than an old analogue Roland Space Echo. Mark: "That's my favourite tool. I don't think there's anything to beat them. Digital delay lines bug me; they haven't got a speed control that works musically. As you speed them up, they step up, jarring through the delay changes, so you can't jam them. As a musical instrument, delay is such an important factor in the drive and feel of a track, and with the Roland, you can push it, or lay back on it — and you often need to."